Fourteen silver tankards, beakers and cups that were stored for centuries in the vaults of The First Church in Salem were sold for $787,800 at Christie's, the New York City auction house.
The top seller for the historic Salem church was a small silver cup made in 1670 by Jeremiah Dummer of Newbury, America's first native-born silversmith. The cup is not quite 5 inches tall and was given to the church by Francis Skerry, who ran a local malt house.
It was bought by an "anonymous collector" for $204,000, a Christie's spokeswoman said. It was expected to reach between $150,000 and $250,000.
Dummer's connection to Newbury is still felt today. He deeded a parcel of his Newbury farm to his son, who in turn donated it for the creation of a school. That school would eventually become The Governor's Academy.
Not all of the First Church's silver wound up in the hands of anonymous collectors. Some will be coming back to Salem.
The Peabody Essex Museum spent $102,000 for a silver flagon made in Salem in 1769 by John Andrew, the city's most important 18th century silversmith. The museum, which was represented by curator Dean Lahikainen, also bought two early 19th century silver canns, or mugs, made in Newburyport by Ebeneezer Moulton in 1805, according to a church official.
The auction was a bittersweet moment for church officials, several of whom were in attendance. They did not want to part with the valuable communion silver but said it was given years ago by church members to help in hard times and will be used on building improvements that are too costly for the church to finance on its own. Although the final figure is not known, the church is expected to receive more than $600,000 from the auction once Christie's takes its share of the sale price.
"I'm quite pleased we went ahead and did this," said the Rev. Jeffrey Barz-Snell, who was reached last night in New York. "It bodes well for the church, which is growing. It helps us make some (improvements) to the building that can help us survive."
The First Church, at 316 Essex St., was built in 1836 and is in need of major repairs, church officials said.
"I'm very happy," Barz-Snell said, "and, to be honest, I think the people who contributed the silver to the church would be pleased with what we're doing."
The silver from the First Church, one of the oldest Protestant congregations in North America, drew a lot of interest at Christie's annual Early-American Silver Sale. Although there were only a few Salem items on the auction block, four of the church's silver pieces went for six-figure prices. Of the top 10 sale prices at the entire auction, five were from the First Church.
Bidders were well aware, a Christie's official said, of the rich history of the First Church, which was founded in 1629. One of its early ministers was Roger Williams, who was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony because of his radical views and went on to found Rhode Island. First Church members include Nathaniel Hawthorne and two victims of the witch hysteria of 1692.
One of the cups sold yesterday was donated by John Higginson, an official examiner during the Salem Witch Trials who interviewed accused witches. "Examiner Higginson's cup," as it was called at the auction, sold for $108,000.
The most expensive piece of silver sold yesterday was not from Salem. A silver teapot owned by the Darling Foundation of Buffalo, N.Y., went for $352,000.